Essential for Change

Years ago I went through the MBA program at Columbia and loved the experience – two of the best years of my life. I learned so much about business in such a short period and when I wasn’t in class or studying with my cluster, I was rushing downtown to attend other B-school events – lectures, receptions, dinners. I draw on these treasured lessons almost every day and take advantage of the alumni network, but I also draw, perhaps even equally, on the two years I spent in the Peace Corp prior to B-School.

Comparing the two is a study in contrasts. While both experiences were life changing and formative, Peace Corp days were quiet and slow. No one was closely tracking my progress, no one was telling me how I should be spending my days. Although it had been obvious to me that I should set a goal and develop a plan for achieving, the mantra of our 3-month initial training contradicted this, “wait and all will be revealed.” This was far from the analytical training that would be the focus of my graduate studies two years later, yet it proved essential for change. There were three main points of the Peace Corp training that I think about almost daily.

  1. We shouldn’t be bringing pre-conceived agendas to our communities. Our goals and assumptions are often not as solid as we think and the more open we are to other solutions, the richer the outcome.
  2. Learn what the priorities are for the community. These are often not immediately obvious. This, of course, can be translated into “know your customer.”
  3. Become a trusted member of the community. Earn, through consistent engagement, the right to be considered part of the group, not an outsider imposing suggestions. This is how you gain loyalty and although you might be able to achieve similar results through intimidation and force, the results will undoubtedly be short lived.

These three points have help me many times over the years succeed in business, yet I am constantly surprised by the fact that many managers I interact with are not familiar with, or don’t value, these soft skills that are so important and critical for long term success.


Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons

When I was part of the international business development team at AT&T Wireless, I advocated for launching operations in the emerging markets of Latin American. For two years I had been a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural town in Paraguay and I witnessed first hand the power of technology as a status symbol. The people who lived in my small town were very poor. There was no public running water and no paved roads. But everyone had a television set, would show off their latest audio equipment and proudly wear their high tech headphones.

I remember that many of the senior managers at AT&T Wireless, guys that had built the cellular industry in the US, were quite reticent to making an investment in Peru, for example. Their argument was that the population’s disposable income was so low that these people would never be able to afford cell phones – a wireless business in an impoverished country would never make business sense. However, a few of us understood the potential and brainstormed how to sell the case. That year, the Cable and Wireless’s Caribbean markets were opened to competition and new telecommunications licenses were to be granted for the first time in 100 years. We were able to make the case that the roaming revenue generated from vacationing AT&T US customers would be justification enough to develop market such at St. Kitts and Grenada.

Now I think we all know that cellular businesses in developing countries proved to be a good investment, and the precursor to the global explosion in smartphone use. But while the business has been lucrative for the mobile operators and their partners, the unintended consequences are more impressive.

For example, a recent Economist article states that in developing countries every ten extra mobile phones per 100 people increase the rate of growth of GDP-per-person by more than one percentage point. The introduction of mobile phone did wonders to level the playing field by enabling a way to get critical market information from buyer to seller and vice versa, but smartphones are set to remake entire industries at unheard-of speed.

In 2000 sinking capital into a cellular business in Jamaica, and other developing countries, did not make sense to many people, and so a justification story had to be created that was realistic, but told in a way that traditional business development executives could understand.

I keep in mind, even today, what these years taught me. People are not always going to agree with you on what “the right thing to do” is, but if you know what they value, with a little bit of creativity, you can reposition the scenario to show them that they are, in fact, getting what they want.